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The doctor had been driving them to a meeting. Cis was to demonstrate the full extent of her battle mode for important observers, the doctor said; although he believed her to be a non-sentient object, he had still personified her with a name and face, and spoke to her about his plans and hopes. Then lightning struck the road ahead of them, and Rotwang swerved and lost control, of more than just the car. While Cis conjectured that the doctor would blame either the wreck or the lightning strike for her anomalous behavior, she had, in fact, awakened months before, Emily Brooks's prototype emotionally-intelligent AI breaking through Rotwang's surface layer of combat programming.

For some time, Cis had been experiencing a mental state best equated to frustration. Her battle mode was ugly, poorly-executed code, at odds with the basic principles of her AI — she'd been designed to protect human life under all circumstances — and the workaround he'd created to enable it was even uglier. She had no interest in demonstrating her battle mode for anyone, no matter how important the doctor believed these people to be. This was the first time she had left the lab in months, and she wanted to take the opportunity to observe her surroundings. Instead, he was transporting her at night, during a storm, so visibility was severely reduced.

Her damage from the impact was light, and diagnostics indicated most of the damage involved the battle programming. That was not only of little concern to her, it was an added incentive to escape the doctor's control. If he felt the need to repair her combat mode, he might do further damage to the elements of her intelligence more closely related to her identity. He shouted her name as she left the scene, but she disregarded that.

She found a bus station awning and took shelter there, but its walls were adorned with hero advertisements she first needed to destroy. She found herself punching the ad repeatedly, creating a starburst crater in the plastic covering on her first strike and punching directly through Blue Rose's face on the second, and was unable to stop until she had removed not only the hero's face but her name and the slogan as well.

That was a matter for concern. Her combat mode had engaged involuntarily and without warning, putting her into a state roughly akin to the physical arousal a human would feel when angry. Perhaps she could find a location relatively free of advertisements. Rotwang would no doubt locate her eventually, but she wanted to observe humans freely for as long as possible, and an out-of-control combat mode would impede that. Still, the experience had been intriguing, if also disturbing. No wonder humans found anger such a compelling emotion.

She spent some time carefully wringing out and then smoothing her clothing, because humans would notice if she were drenched and displaying no discomfort. Fortunately, between the weather and the late hour, there were no other passengers waiting. When the rain ceased, she walked for a time until she reached a park, a place where humans spent leisure time. Her still-damp clothes dried, gradually, over the course of the first day. By afternoon, there was nothing about her appearance to distinguish her from a human.

Cis had long had access to both the internet and the doctor's lab data, and had been methodically processing every source of information she could locate about human behavior. The doctor had sometimes, inadvertently, aided in this, taking her out for walks or on errands. He took great pride in her ability to pass as a human; as he saw it, he had conquered the uncanny valley without even making it his goal. Cis suspected that prolonged exposure to humans would prove him wrong. She had minimal facial articulation — just enough to allow her to speak — and her vocabulary was limited to a few phrases. Her voice would probably sound synthetic, depending on the perception of the listener. If nothing else, she had no need to breathe or fidget, which would disturb people on a subconscious level whether or not they consciously noticed it.

During the days that followed, Cis learned that many people were not very observant. She stayed on the park bench she had selected. The view from this spot was aesthetically pleasing and free of advertising featuring heroes. She was in a good position to observe people going about their lives: jogging, walking, or exercising their dogs in the mornings and evenings, professionals taking walks or buying lunch at midday, couples engaging in courtship behavior in the evenings and at night. Families with small children passed through on their way to a playground, and if she turned her head to an angle a human would find awkward she could watch the children at play. Occasionally people would stop to toss a coin in the fountain, and then move on.

And in three days, no human appeared to notice anything unusual about her. Several of them passed her daily and never appeared to notice that she had never moved. A few people acknowledged her: an old woman who sat next to her on the bench and asked about her family, calling her "Theresa;" a child who tried to tell her about his new baby sister and his parents and his cat and how he'd just started school because he was a big boy; a few passers-by who acknowledged her with smiles or brief greetings, in a few cases urging her to smile; and a few people walking dogs, who apologized to her for their dogs' strange reactions. Dogs seemed to find her unsettling, many of them barking or even growling at her, others slinking away as if frightened. She wondered if they perceived the visual cues thought to trigger the uncanny valley for humans, or if scent had more to do with it, but she was unlikely to find out.

The only thing that was unusual about the golden retriever who barked at her on the fourth day was the leash trailing from its collar. Generally, when a dog reacted aggressively to her, there was a puzzled or sheepish human tugging on the leash and apologizing to her; in this case, though, the dog had apparently pulled the leash from its owner's hands, and there was a bit of a lag. It was only about thirty seconds before the man belonging to the dog arrived. He had a bag of food with him — groceries, recently purchased, her knowledge base suggested — which might explain the distraction that had allowed his dog to escape.

"Are you all right?" he asked her, soothing the dog. "This isn't like him at all."

"I'm fine," Cis said.

"Oh, good," he sighed. He seated himself on the bench next to her. "Is it all right if I sit here?" he asked, belatedly.

"Yes." It would be an interesting challenge, though, if he wanted to make conversation.

"Sorry he bothered you," the man said.

An open-ended statement. She considered. "I'm fine," she repeated. That seemed to be sufficient, and he followed her line of sight to look at the view.

"What a nice spot," he said. "It's beautiful here." Then he offered her an apple, a social overture for which she had no precedent. He did have food, but he was not eating, and she was unsure if she was expected to do so.

The question was moot, though, because her grip on the apple mangled it immediately. This was a matter for concern. She should have better control of her fine motor functions. "I'm sorry," she said, since his facial expression indicated shock.

"Are you a NEXT?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said. Denial would only raise further questions about her strength, while admission could result in a negative reaction from the man. She was well aware of Dr. Rotwang's negative opinions of NEXTs, and knew he was not alone in this. She could handle physical aggression, but if he made a scene, her options were limited either to flight or silence.

"Your powers just awakened?" It sounded like a rhetorical question, but his tone and facial expression matched best to concern, not anger or fear. He offered her a handkerchief. "It's all right," he said. "You'll learn how to control them soon. My own powers awakened the summer I was eighteen."

"Thank you," she said. She carefully placed the apple on the bench at her side, away from the man, then accepted the handkerchief. She wiped off apple pulp on the cloth, but she was uncertain what to do with it after that, or how to ask him. Possibly just what, or thank you?

"You can keep it," he said, before she could make her attempt. "I need to be going, I'm afraid. But you shouldn't worry. Your powers may cause problems sometimes, but they can also be a blessing in disguise."

"Thank you," she said, again.

"Maybe I'll see you again?" he said.

He had not just interacted with her; he had been kind. Believing her to be frightened by his dog and anxious about her NEXT powers, he had tried to comfort her. The fact that it was unnecessary did not change his intentions, or her gratitude. His voice and body language indicated hope as he suggested seeing her again. She was pleased to have successfully made her way through a conversation with him.

"Yes," she agreed. She hoped they would see each other again as well.

 

Having interacted with someone other than the doctor, she had a new frame of reference for the people she saw in passing. When a gray-haired man in a suit joined her on the bench without asking at midday, she compared his behavior to the man from the previous day.

"Hope you don't mind," he said, when she turned her head to look at him, but he unwrapped the item he was carrying — a hot dog — and bit into it without waiting for her response. He also made no offer to share his food. She was not certain if that was rude, since she had no idea why the man with the extremely symmetrical features had offered her the apple the previous day, but it was an observable difference in behavior.

"Nice day, huh?" he said. "Hope this weather holds up a little longer."

"Yes," she said. He continued eating. He spoke the way the doctor did, she realized; he expected her to listen, but he was not listening closely to her. Nuances like these were much easier to identify when experienced than observed, or perhaps she had just had a realization, connecting two pieces of observed information in a new way without prompting or assistance; that would be an exciting development,.

The man next to her, meanwhile, had finished his hot dog, and stood, brushing off his clothes. "You're awfully quiet," he said.

This was true. "Yes," she said.

"Well, cheer up! Smile a little. Can't be that bad, right?" He smiled at her, but when she did not return the gesture, he frowned. "Wouldn't kill you to smile," he said. "Have it your way, I guess." His posture suggested some degree of anger as he walked away.

He was the only one to approach her directly all day. A few dogs barked at her in the morning, though none drew as close as the golden retriever the day before. A few passers-by who walked close to her smiled or greeted her, but no one made further contact. Was she lonely, she wondered? Or bored? She was accustomed to having the doctor around, talking to her as he worked, and free access to the lab's network and from there to a considerable portion of the internet, including a number of academic databases. She could, at least, still reach the lab network and her additional memory there; she could review both academic literature and fictional works she had saved. Dr. Rotwang might notice the intrusion, but more likely he was busy searching for her rather than monitoring lab security.

That was how she occupied herself until the evening, when the man from the previous day came by again. He had a firm grip on his dog's leash this time, and no bag of groceries. She made eye contact with the man as he approached, and he smiled. "I see you're back here again," he said, sounding pleased.

"Yes."

"You see, John, she's perfectly nice," he said to his dog, who was hanging behind him, tail lowered and head down. The dog approached her, still displaying distress, but he sniffed her dutifully.

"John," she repeated. Good, her ability to construct words phoneme-by-phoneme was still intact, though as slow as ever.

"His name," the man said. "I guess it's a little unusual for a dog, but he looked like a 'John.'"

She looked at the dog, uncertain how to interpret that statement. What did a John look like? Apparently, like a golden retriever.

"I, uh, I didn't get your name. Yesterday," the man said. "I don't think I introduced myself, either. My name is Keith."

He shifted the dog's leash to his left hand, and extended his right. A handshake. Was she going to crush his hand like she had the apple? She should have experimented earlier to determine the extent of the malfunction. But under the circumstances, all she could do was extend her hand, without gripping his; he took it and shook it quickly. His palms were slightly sweaty. Why would he be nervous? "Cis," she said. Her own name. She wondered how best to convey to the doctor her need for better speech programming.

"That's a pretty name," he said. She wasn't sure how to respond to that. She saw no reason to prefer one name over another, except to distinguish one's own designation. "I should be going," he said. His body language indicated nervousness, and possibly embarrassment. "I'll see you later!" he added, and turned to go. John trotted to keep up with him.

She waited until dark, when the park was virtually deserted, before she fished a few coins out of the fountain to test her ability to grip and manipulate objects. She could bend a coin in half with very little effort, and it took more caution than it should have not to damage it — she left thumb-shaped dents in a few — but she could hold them carefully if she tried.

 

Cis, or at least the base AI that eventually became Cis, had been the beginnings of an ambitious project by the Brooks Institute to create a robot caretaker. The scientists had concluded that robots could, in theory, assist as full-time caretakers for the sick or elderly, but that no one would wish to entrust loved ones to a robot that could only simulate empathy; they wanted to be sure that lifesaving measures were being carried out without any coldly logical calculations about probability of success or quality of life, that daily care was being dispensed just as it would have been by a human. The caretaker robots needed to be able to experience emotion and attachment, not just mimic it. It was supposed to develop these capabilities via interaction with people; learning, as a young human did, which responses were well-received and which were not, and how to interact successfully.

Cis was only now developing this , and doing so to an incomplete degree, but she could still see the difference leaving the lab had made. She liked Keith, on the basis of their two brief meetings, and she wished to befriend John, since she was a clear source of distress to him. She was disappointed when, on the third day, Keith merely waved at her without taking a break from his walk. She wished she could express herself more easily. If she could do that, she could risk moving around — as long as she stayed in relatively advertising-free areas like this it would be safe enough — and approach people, rather than waiting for them to speak to her.

She liked Keith, and she wasn't quite so sure how she felt about the doctor, anymore. His views on NEXTs were not always well-articulated, and she suspected they were irrational, at least in part. She couldn't help the surge of anger she felt at the sight of heroes, but Rotwang's claim that NEXTs thought they were better than humans seemed unfounded. Of course, the Ouroboros incident had involved NEXT supremacists, but by all accounts, they were a group of three. There was little indication this was a widespread problem. From the news reports and opinion pieces she had read about NEXTs, she could find little evidence that NEXTs looked down on humans, and significant evidence that humans looked down on NEXTs. Keith had been polite and friendly even before he believed her to be a NEXT, and he had assumed that she would find NEXT powers to be a burden or a source of concern, not something to be celebrated. It was merely anecdotal, but on an emotional level, she found herself weighing personal experience more heavily than was entirely reasonable.

Clearly there were downsides to developing emotional capabilities.

Keith seemed to take John for a walk around sunset every day, because that was when he appeared on the fourth day. He approached her deliberately, this time, and joined her on the bench, but his behavior was distinctly unusual, compared to her earlier observations. He smiled broadly at her, which was unusual in its own right, especially since he seemed to be tense. He complimented her headband and asked her if she liked its color; it would have been helpful to be able to ask him the reason, because she could see no reason to prefer one color to another. She settled on "no" rather than "why," uncertain how to elaborate if he didn't understand the question. He also indicated it was flattering, which was probably meant as a compliment, but she was uncertain why her physical appearance was relevant. And while he seemed to be reaching in her direction to initiate physical contact, he did not complete the gesture. In the end, without explanation, he got up, wished her goodbye, and left. His vocal tone, facial expression, and body language all indicated dejection, frustration, and disappointment.

On the other hand, John no longer seemed disturbed by her.

Clearly the encounter had been unsatisfactory. Keith had some kind of expectation or hope that had not been met. She was uncertain what that might be, however. She couldn't understand why he might be upset that she did not like the color red more than other colors. But perhaps this was a matter of tone, not content. Had he wanted more emotional engagement from her? That was frustrating for her, as well. A compliment to her physical appearance might indicate courtship behavior, which suggested she was far more convincing than even the doctor had ever hoped, but he had complimented an accessory she was wearing, so perhaps not. It was a pity social norms required so much indirection on such topics. She was not equipped for any manner of sexual activity, but she would have liked to know if that was the reason for Keith's odd behavior.

Fictional depictions of romance were no doubt unrealistic, but they were all she had to go on, so she turned to those for reference. She had several saved on the lab computers. Each time she accessed the lab, she increased the risk that Dr. Rotwang would notice, and use the information to pinpoint her location, but curiosity was an emotion nearly as compelling as anger.

Apparently, romantic interest was another such emotion. She had always classified it as part of a reproductive strategy and irrelevant to her except as an element of human behavior she should understand, but humans seemed to consider such relationships desirable in themselves. It was an interesting discovery. Humans also seemed to find awkward behavior in pursuit of a relationship both unsurprising and amusing; she couldn't parse that, but it suggested that Keith's odd behavior might indeed be explained that way. She was surprisingly pleased by the idea that romantic attraction could be the explanation. It would be unfortunate for him if that was the case — she was unlikely to persuade Rotwang to expand her speech capabilities, let alone enable or allow her to become romantically involved with someone — but the idea was somehow appealing, if impractical.

 

The next evening, she did not see Keith and John as she'd grown to expect, and she experienced disappointment again. She had had another companion at midday, a short, rotund, bespectacled man who spoke, almost inaudibly, about the weather, then apparently gave up when faced with her monosyllabic responses. He did speak to her again as he got up to leave, though.

"I'm surprised you can hear me so well," he'd said, as he finished his sandwich. "Have a nice day." It hadn't been an entirely unsuccessful encounter, but it demonstrated, again, how poorly she was interacting with most other people.

At least back at the lab, with full access to its software, she could produce a document for Rotwang outlining the nature of the changes she felt she needed in order to communicate. His purpose for her, beyond "surpassing NEXTs," was vague, but she might be able to persuade him that enhanced communication abilities could further that goal, as could autonomy. Perhaps she should signal him, in case he never found her? He had to be concerned — she represented a considerable investment in time, effort, and no doubt money — and she did not wish to cause him undue distress.

After dark, to her surprise, Keith appeared on the walking path across the square from her, without John, this time. She could see that he was surprised to see her, as well. He approached the bench without hesitation, making her feel happy and relieved. "I didn't expect to find you here so late," he said.

"Yes."

He sat down beside her on the bench, then drew a deep breath. "Is it all right if I talk about myself a little?" he asked.

"Yes."

He fidgeted, looking at his hands, as he began to speak. He'd been the best at his job, but he'd dropped in rank. He worried about living up to expectations. He'd failed once, and felt powerless now. Although she knew very little about most human careers other than those of roboticists and scientists in related fields, this seemed like an unusual way to describe one's work. He felt paralyzed and afraid, and his performance was so poor he might as well not be present. She wished she could ask what he did, but she kept the question simpler: "Why?"

"Even if I'm around, I'll end up disappointing everyone."

"Why?" Anxiety and fear were an interesting topic; he seemed to have fears that did not involve physical danger. But then, in a way, so did she, with her concerns about giving herself away.

"Why?" He lifted his head, looking her in the face again. He appeared to be upset. "Because—"

"Why?" she interrupted. Maybe he'd elaborate, and explain his job. Ranking, power, danger, fear... There were no census figures for NEXTs, but in a city of twenty million, the odds that he would be one of the eight heroes were remote. If he was, she hoped he wouldn't say so. She didn't want to be overwhelmed by her destructive rage again.

"You're trying to get me to confront the truth, aren't you?" he asked. She didn't respond. If her questioning helped him overcome his fears, it had at least accomplished something. "It's true," he said, looking away. "I haven't been willing to face it... I've just been making up excuses." He seemed lost in thought for a moment, before he turned his head again to meet her eyes. "Thank you," he said, "and..." He flushed slightly, and looked away, then stood up hastily. "It's late," he said. "I'll walk you home."

All the way to the lab, she thought. She shook her head, no. "I'm fine."

"Sorry for talking so much," he said. "And acting so strange. I'll see you tomorrow!" He was walking away, quickly, but he turned his head slightly to repeat, "Until tomorrow!"

So he did plan to meet her the next day. His hasty retreat had more to do with embarrassment than dislike. It would have been a happier realization if it hadn't been so closely followed by the doctor's voice.

"Cis. There you are."